If Orwell Were Editing Commentary

Times Book Editor

Proximity lends disenchantment. In a recent article in the Toronto Star, literary critic Robert Fulford reviewed American neoconservatism as seen from north of the border. Six years ago, he said, neoconservatism was exciting, its critique of floundering American liberalism both brilliant and eloquent. “But that was 5 or 6 years ago.”

Now, Fulford says, “disappointment is reflected in the products of the neoconservatives’ intellectual world. Recently Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary--a quite marvellous magazine only 5 or 6 years ago--published its 40th anniversary issue, a survey of U.S. policy since 1945; it turned out to be possibly the most dismal issue in Commentary’s history, a convention of intellectuals covering their assets. The New Criterion, which Hilton Kramer started a few years ago as neoconservatism’s cultural magazine, has quickly become flat and unimaginative. And a new magazine, The National Interest, with Irving Kristol as publisher, has turned out to be a collection of speeches given previously by its editors, each of them entirely predictable.”

In “The Bloody Crossroads, Where Literature and Politics Meet” (Simon & Schuster: $16.95), a collection of previously published articles by Podhoretz, one may perhaps discern the seeds of neoconservatism’s decline. The same few theses, sometimes even the same quotations, recur in article after article. But whether one agrees with Podhoretz or not, there is nothing tired about his exposition. And more interesting than anything his energetic articles say about the books and writers they discuss is what they say, cumulatively, about their author and his movement. Fulford’s view of neoconservatism may be correct, but how paradoxical to fault a literary and intellectual movement for merely capturing the government! This is, of course, precisely why it deserves close attention.


The nine chapters of the book come in threes. Part I deals with Albert Camus, with George Orwell and with the several authors of “The God That Failed.” Part II deals with F. R. Leavis, with Henry Adams and--in the pivotal chapter of the book--with the origins of neoconservatism itself. Part III deals with Henry Kissinger, with Milan Kundera and with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Five of the nine chapters--the first three and the last two--deal with writers who broke with communism. Against each, Podhoretz objects that the break was not clean enough or, more precisely, that the writer did not recognize that defecting from the Soviet Union inevitably entails defecting to the United States. In a famous essay published during World War II, ex-Communist Arthur Koestler wrote: “In this war we are fighting a lie in the name of a half-truth.” Podhoretz does not cite this particular line, but this is the attitude he most abhors, the attitude (let us call it so) of insufficient repentance. To the extent that any ex-communist writer succumbs to this attitude, to that extent he will find in Podhoretz an aroused critic. Two instances prove particularly instructive.

Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Albert Camus, says Podhoretz, was secretly in the American camp. For careerist reasons, he had to hide his true colors. In the Marxist French intellectual world of his day, he could not risk revealing what in the privacy of his heart he surely believed. But that he did in fact believe it is confirmed by his mysterious masterwork, “The Fall,” which Podhoretz reads as the 1957 Nobel Prize winner’s agonized comment on his own bad faith vis a vis the American alternative. Felix-Baptiste Clamance, the protagonist of the novel, who describes himself notoriously as a “judge-penitent,” is none other than Camus himself, repentant of communism but guilty, in his own eyes, of failing to go all the way; that is to say, all the way to Washington.

George Orwell was more forthright. Though “Animal Farm” and “1984” had made his attitude toward the Soviet Union clear enough, he did not stop with the coded messages of those books. “I don’t, God knows, want a war to break out,” he wrote in a passage Podhoretz quotes to excellent effect, “but if one were compelled to choose between Russia and America--and I suppose that is the choice one might have to make--I would always choose America.”

British socialists claim Orwell as one of their own, and understandably enough, Podhoretz concedes, since the British journalist styled himself a socialist to the end of his days. But Orwell’s socialism--unlike the quasi-religious socialism to which the authors of “The God That Failed” continued to cling--consisted almost entirely, he says, of a hope for the material betterment of the poor. Had he lived long enough to see socialism disappoint that hope, Orwell would surely have yielded to his chronic irritation with leftist intellectuals, pacifists, and America-baiters and signed on with his true friends. In short, in the title phrase of this chapter, “If Orwell Were Alive Today,” he would be a neoconservative.

Whatever may be said of neoconservatism as broad cultural analysis, its literary criticism in these two examples is wrong-headed and coarse.


Podhoretz’s claims about Orwell are correct as far as they go. The trouble is, they do not go nearly far enough. Orwell was, yes, an instinctive conservative; but were he alive today, were he (why not?) editing Commentary, he would be a far more severe conservative than Podhoretz--not just because he wrote better than Podhoretz does but also because, in starkest contrast to Podhoretz, he was almost pathologically antipathetic to power and to those who hold it. Can we imagine Orwell redux, dapper in black tie and tux, sipping champagne in his own honor with the likes of Henry Kissinger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Jean Kirkpatrick? Can we imagine him beaming at George P. Schultz for the benefit of a New York Times society page photographer? Podhoretz did all that at his Commentary anniversary party in January, 1985. Partygoer Michael Novak said he was sorry that Podhoretz was a Jew because “he would make a wonderful pope.” Can we imagine anyone, even Novak, saying he was sorry that George Orwell was an atheist because he would make a wonderful pope?

Orwell, to repeat, was an instinctive conservative. Podhoretz has that much right. But in 1986, Orwell would be the kind of steamed-up, old-fashioned, rationalist conservative who would make Ronald Reagan fly for shelter to the squishy liberals. One can almost hear Orwell on defensive missiles for Saudi Arabia vs. defensive helicopters for Nicaragua, on “bad” Ferdinand Marcos vs. “good” Chun Doo Hwan, on our eager sale of U.S. nuclear technology to Communist China vs. our sullen embargo of U.S. natural gas technology for Communist Russia. In a writer as wildly unsystematic as Orwell, attitude is everything; and Podhoretz misses Orwell’s pugnacious, willfully anti-authoritarian attitude utterly.

But what Podhoretz misses about Orwell is as nothing compared to what he misses about Camus. His thesis that this quintessentially, indeed somewhat chauvinistically French writer could have framed the central question of his greatest work in terms that excluded not just France but also Europe--could have framed it, in other words, as the choice between (as he would undoubtedly have seen it) the barbarian Asiatic Russians and the vulgarian Mestizo Americans--is the most extravagantly preposterous thesis ever offered about Camus. When a Frenchman thinks of East and West, he is as likely to have the Muslim East as the Russian East in mind. If he moves from Left to Right, he is rather more likely to be flirting with Rome than with Washington. It may or may not make sense to interpret “The Fall” as a Christian allegory, but the redemption that Clamance seeks is clearly one that no foursquare declaration of loyalty to America--Orwell’s kind of declaration-- could bring about. Podhoretz finds Camus conservative in his earlier “The Rebel.” Very well. De Gaulle was conservative too. But like it or not, there are more kinds of conservativism than the strain dominant in the United States. And all political conservatism aside, there seems to be something more than the merely political at stake in “The Fall.”

Neoconservatism will not rise or fall because in two instances, its leading spokesman has produced inferior literary criticism. But there may be for all that a lesson to be learned. The charge commonly leveled at conservative foreign policy is that it neglects the particular and the local in favor of the global, the “geopolitical,” the “geostrategic,” what have you. No little fight in your little country counts for much unless it bears on our big fight with our big enemy. This neglect of the local in a given country has a clear analogue in the neglect of the personal in a given writer. And Podhoretz’s criticism of Orwell and Camus seems to me to be vitiated by just this kind of neglect. He is only interested in them for their contribution to what interests him. He misses, as a result, what would otherwise be most obvious in them. He misses what they are as men: Orwell the huffy scold, Camus the moody patriot.

I cannot say whether Fulford is right and the literary influence of neoconservatism has already begun to fade. But, if so, I cannot think that the loss to literary discourse will be a large one.